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Archive: 10 November 2010

A Question of Degree

I recently found myself asked for advice, which feels odd even at the best of times, and this was (it seemed to me) of a particularly serious nature.  I’m curious to know what you think is the proper answer.

A few days back, I got e-mail with the following questions:

…in your opinion, how useful is a computer science degree for a career in web development? I’m a second year CS major, and considering dropping out because I don’t see the value in it anymore. It’s just taking away my time from learning and doing what I love most–developing web apps. Will dropping out hurt me later on?

I chewed on it for a day or so and then ended up writing the following in response:

I wish I could give you a definitive answer, but the honest truth is that I’m conflicted.  I’m not the only one, either: a recent survey of 26,000+ web professionals indicated that just over half felt their education had some relevance to what they do (http://aneventapart.com/alasurvey2009/#roe).

To use myself as an example, I got my degree (in History, as it happens), but that was before there was such a thing as a career in web development.  The same is true for a lot of the people I think of as contemporary to me; that is, people about my age.  Almost none of them have CS degrees, and many don’t have degrees at all.  I got my job as webmaster of a respected research school because I worked there already and nobody else had ever heard of the web.  I doubt very much that, were I just now exiting school and entering the market, I could do anything like that.

On the other hand, I will say that in the computer field in general, and web in particular, very few people seem to care what degree you do or don’t have.  But here’s the rub: these days, it might be that having a CS degree is what gets you that first job or two.

On the other other hand, if you build some killer web apps, nobody will care about your schooling.  They’ll care about your portfolio.  I don’t know if that lies in front of you, of course.  Maybe it does.  Or maybe it’s a good idea to finish schooling so that you’ll be paper qualified for jobs that say “Requires CS degree or equivalent” if you need to seek them out.

So, to get back to your original question, “It is unless it isn’t” is about the best I can do.  As someone who values education very highly and knows a degree can be an asset in job-seeking, my instinct is to tell you to finish your degree.  As someone who has a lot of contact with successful people who didn’t do that, my intellect requires me to say it’s not critical.

A day past when I sent it, I still don’t feel any less torn.  (And in re-reading what I wrote, I can see my indecision in the writing: scattered, whipping from one side to the other.  Man, did that one ever need an editor!)  I don’t really need to know what people think of what I said, but I’m really curious to know what you would advise this young person.  Leave your thoughts in the comments, if you please, and I’ll make sure word of your input gets passed along to the student who wrote me.  Thanks!

Addendum 12 Nov 10: please see “Degree of Influence” to see how things turned out.

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